‘Game of Thrones’ Star Liam Cunningham Is Now in ‘3 Body Problem’

Born and raised in Dublin, Liam Cunningham speaks in Joycean streams of consciousness that often have no discernible beginning, middle or end. He talks with his hands and taps his feet, salting his anecdotes with friendly F-bombs, catching his breath only long enough to take a puff of his distinctively scented e-cigarettes. They aren’t very popular on the set.

“They smell like if you took the cardboard that comes with a dry cleaned shirt and held it over a burner,” said D.B. Weiss, who, with his production partner David Benioff, has given Cunningham choice roles in “Game of Thrones” and now “3 Body Problem.” A heady new science-fiction series, based on a trilogy of novels by the Chinese author Liu Cixin, “3 Body Problem” premieres Thursday on Netflix.

In it, Cunningham plays Thomas Wade, the no-nonsense spy master who leads a team of physicists chosen to save the world from a very slow-moving but ominous alien invasion. Unlike Davos Seaworth, the emotionally vulnerable knight Cunningham played in “Thrones,” Wade is gruff, bellicose and secretive, an enigmatic authority figure whose back story left even Cunningham with questions.

“So little about him is known, and everybody you talk to that’s seen this thing is like, ‘What’s his story?’” Cunningham said on an Austin hotel patio during the South by Southwest Film Festival, where the series had its world premiere. “He’s got the U.N. Secretary General on the end of the phone, and people do what he tells them to, and you go, ‘Who’s giving him this authority?’ And the funny thing is, I never felt the need to talk to the boys” — Weiss and Benioff, that is — “they never offered, and I never asked, which probably is not a good thing to say, I should probably say to everybody, ‘Oh, I know everything about him, but I’m not telling you.’”

Breath. Puff.

Cunningham, 62 with salt-and-pepper hair and bright blue eyes, came to acting relatively late in life. He worked as an electrician until he was 29, spending a chunk of his 20s in Zimbabwe bringing electricity to rural communities. “You know the song ‘Wichita Lineman’?” he asks, referring to the ’60s country hit by Glen Campbell. “That was me, except I was the Zimbabwe lineman. For an Irish, pale-skinned elf from Dublin, it was mind-blowing.” For a time he worked in a national park, “the size of Belgium and with 16,000 elephants.”

This was new and exciting, and when he returned to Dublin and resumed driving from job to job in a little yellow van, he found he missed the charge of his life in Africa. Always interested in film and television, he saw a newspaper ad for an acting school and figured he could pick up a new hobby. As he began landing theater roles, it started to feel more like a vocation. He fell in love with the process, and with how it fed his natural sense of curiosity.

“It was the problem solving, the ‘How do we get that to work?’” he said. “I just found all of that so fascinating.”

Then it was time to break the news to his family. “I love my poor wife,” he said. “I told her, ‘We may be starving for the rest of our lives: I’m about to say goodbye to a nicely paid, semi-government job where the only way you can get sacked is if you shoot someone.’ And I walked away from it.”

She gave her blessing. Next he told his father, a practical-minded dockworker. Cunningham said that after he broke the news, his dad, without looking up from his newspaper, uttered just three words: “For [expletive] sake.”

Cunningham soon found steady work in film and television, landing roles in movies like Alfonso Cuarón’s “A Little Princess” (1995), Michael Winterbottom’s “Jude” (1996) and opposite Cillian Murphy in Ken Loach’s “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” (2006). Benioff and Weiss fell hard for Cunningham when they saw him in “Hunger” (2008), Steve McQueen’s movie about the hunger strike of the Irish Republican Army martyr Bobby Sands. They were particularly taken with a long scene, much of it shot in a continuous take, in which a priest played by Cunningham tries to talk Michael Fassbender’s Sands into ending his strike.

“It was just one of the most gripping things that any of us had ever seen,” Weiss said, sitting alongside Benioff and their fellow “3 Body Problem” creator, Alexander Woo, in an interview in Austin. Benioff and Weiss cast Cunningham in “Thrones” starting in Season 2, and Davos became a fan favorite.

When the showrunners came back to Cunningham for “3 Body Problem,” they almost didn’t get him. “We were like Dustin Hoffman at the end of ‘The Graduate,’” as Benioff put it, begging Cunningham, who had already committed to a movie, to join their project.

“I got a phone call from Dave and Dan, who had obviously done their intel,” Cunningham recalled. “They said, ‘You’re not going with those guys, you’re coming with us.’ And I went, ‘Yep, OK, thank you.’ I hung the phone up, and then the professional side of my brain kicked in, and I thought, ‘That was a bit [expletive] stupid, this could be a week’s work or a couple of days. I didn’t even ask them about the project.’”

The way Cunningham’s colleagues describe it, hiring the actor doesn’t just mean getting a fiercely focused performer when the cameras are rolling. They also get a tireless raconteur for the downtime hours.

“He loves telling a long story,” Benioff said. “The other night, we were having a drink and he started telling this story about Thailand. Then, midway through, he stops and looks at us and he goes, ‘Where was I going with this?’ And we’re like, ‘We don’t know, Liam. Where were you going with it?’ He just lost the thread.

“He also does an act with a napkin that Dan and I had to sit through.”

A napkin act? This sounded intriguing.

“I’m not doing it,” Cunningham said. “It’s one of those things where you have to have a few drinks in you. It’s appalling, and it takes 15 minutes.”

Jess Hong, who plays the physicist Jin Cheng in “3 Body Problem,” shares several scenes with Cunningham, as Wade tries to badger Jin into bringing her skills to the fight to save Earth. She said the Cunningham vigor also comes in handy when it’s time to get down to business.

“It’s incredible to watch him work because as soon as the camera rolls, all of that crazy, almost childlike energy gets focused into the lens,” she said in a video call from London, where she was promoting the series. “On the way to the set, he’s chatting away in the car about what decisions he might make, and when we rehearse he’s chatting away, trying to figure out the best way we can collaborate. Those are always the most creatively fulfilling times, when you have someone really wanting to push the work to its potential.”

But Cunningham comes across as more intuitive than systematic, especially when it comes to choosing roles. “I try not to analyze that too much because you put up parameters, and if you analyze it, your parameters get a little bit smaller every time,” he said. “You start to find a niche and that involves repetition, and I get bored really, really easily.”

One gets the feeling he’d rather talk about something other than acting. For instance, barbecue. He had just been to one of Austin’s most popular pit stops, and he was still buzzing over the experience.

“I went down to the room where they cook, and it looks like the engine room of a submarine,” he said. “And the pit master, you can tell he loves his work. It was really cool just to watch him and the pride he took and how they were loading it all up; six hours for the pork ribs, eight hours for the beef ribs, 12 hours for the brisket. He went through the whole thing, it was really entertaining. Beautiful smells.”

He’s going to save the world, but first he’ll try the ribs. And, of course, tell you how good they are.

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